Fact-Checked By: Dr. Tara Scott, OB-GYN
In the last 5 years, kombucha has become immensely popular, particularly with those who desire good nutrition or seek alternative medicine. Fans of the drink claim it can do everything from lowering your risk of developing diabetes to helping you lose weight. But what exactly is kombucha and do these claims have any scientific proof?
Kombucha Origin Story
Despite the fact that kombucha has only gained popularity in the last decade or so, it has actually been around for thousands of years. It's widely believed to have been invented in China around 220BC, where it was drunk regularly by many.
It then made its way over to Japan around 414AD and was introduced to the people as a health elixir. Apparently, Emperor Inkyo named it after his physician Dr. Kombu, when he presented it to the emperor to help him with some sort of gut issue. “Cha” means “tea” in Japanese.
Scoby Secret Sauce
To put it simply, kombucha is tea, but with probiotics. The ingredients are tea (obviously), a big blob of bacteria affectionately called the SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria +Yeast), and sugar. The SCOBY and yeast break down the sugar and turns it into alcohol and acetic acid. The acetic acid is what gives kombucha its slightly bitter taste.
Because kombucha has so few ingredients, it's very easy to make, and you can actually make it yourself. But make sure to do your research first. Bianca Braxton, who is a family nurse practitioner, says that she would avoid homemade brews altogether due to the high risk of contamination and over-fermentation. Long story short, definitely know and trust the source you refer to because your gut microbiome is delicate!
One important thing to note is that kombucha does contain trace amounts of alcohol due to the fermentation process. It can vary anywhere from 0.5% to 3%. To put it in perspective, a typical beer like Budlight has an ABV of 5%. So be sure to check the labels for both alcohol content and sugar content, which can also get high depending on how long it’s processed and how much sugar is added for taste.
However, even the kombucha with the highest sugar content (20g) is half the amount of a can of Coke (39g) and four more ounces of liquid, making it a healthy alternative to a daily soda.
Marketing vs. Science
The truth of the matter is that while kombucha may very well be the magical elixir that companies claim it to be, there is very little scientific evidence to support it, with every claim preceded by a “may." While there have been many studies done on the effects of kombucha on a variety of different healthcare areas including diabetes, aging, gout, hemorrhoids, diarrhea, liver function, and overall sickness, nearly every study was conducted on rats and other animals as opposed to human subjects.
This is surprising considering the surge of scientific research on the human microbiome, but no reputable studies appear to have been published since 2003. Until more clinical trials are done, the only things that we know for sure about the health benefits of kombucha are the roles that probiotics and antioxidants play.
Antioxidants neutralize free radicals which are compounds that can become dangerous if they overproduce in the body. Our body naturally produces them, but levels decline as we get older. They're also responsible for a host of health benefits which is why it’s wonderful that kombucha contains lots of them.
As we have already said, kombucha is made from tea, which naturally has a bunch of antioxidants. This is beneficial to us because scientists believe that the antioxidants we get from food and beverages can be even more beneficial than those from supplements. They have been proven to reduce liver toxicity and significantly lower your risk of diabetes, among other things. The benefits are endless.
One hundred trillion strands of bacteria live in our gut microbiome, made up of 1000 different species. We have discovered that there are both good and bad bacteria, and when your gut is overpopulated with bad bacteria perhaps because of something you ate or possibly taking too many antibiotics, it can make you susceptible to health problems, including diarrhea, gout, gum disease, tooth decay, and heart disease.
Probiotics help digest food, destroy disease-causing cells, produce vitamins, and metabolize nutrients. Studies have also shown that communities consuming fermented, probiotic-rich foods like kombucha have been in better overall health, particularly relating to weight and BMI. In short, they help you have way fewer stomach and bowel problems and release toxins faster from your body.
Kombucha Is A Healthy Alternative
Until more clinical studies are conducted on humans, we can’t technically claim it is a cure-all elixir. However, drinking kombucha is a healthy alternative drink just for the simple fact that it is made
from tea and probiotics. Probiotics and antioxidants are abundant, and they both have multitudes of associated health benefits, most notably for many, the improved gut health and boosting of immunity.
The dosage, frequency, and duration need further studies, but it's agreed by most in the health space that a serving of 16 ounces a day seems right. It is recommended to start with 4 ounces and work your way up slowly, as the introduction of many healthy bacteria can overwhelm some gut microbiomes. It shouldn’t be used by those with severe health complications or conditions without consulting with a doctor, nor those with significant renal, pulmonary, or liver disease.